Ghost stories should be saturated in deep sadness. Perhaps this is due to my disbelief in any sort of afterlife, but what I personally demand from tales of spooks and spirits is that they capture an essence of grief, of guilt, of unfinished business. The metaphor of it all. The best ones—movies like Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo, Ti West’s The Innkeepers, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, or to take it back to the classics The Haunting and The Innocents—soak us in a foggy primordial soup of regret and loss. They disturb the barrier between the material here and now and a confusing emotional netherworld where our interior hauntings step out of the closet and become manifest. I want less to be scared by them than I do to be unsettled.
This is a positive as far as Steven Soderbergh’s latest, the haunted house experiment Presence is concerned because this is not a scary movie. Tales of walk-outs from the Sundance premiere due to its terror-inducing nature slightly confounded me—Soderbergh indulges a few Paranormal-Activity-esque tricks of objects moving on their own and one good jump-inducer involving an invisible breath blowing in a character’s face, but Presence is (to its benefit, I say) mostly concerned with separating us from the earthly plain and suspending us in its unsettling in-between.
Soderbergh, still an experimentalist after all these years, loves to permeate the barriers between genres most of all, and while he’s come close to making straight-up horror movies before—Contagion, Side Effects, and closest of all his 2018 mind-bender Unsane—Presence is perhaps his most straight-forward of the bunch. This is, full stop, a haunted house movie.
Just one where (aye here’s the rub) we are the ghost. Or, more precisely, the camera is the ghost. His experimental trickery this time around lays in the way he tells the story, which is by using a first-person camera perspective to put us in the shoes (or whatever the ghostly equivalent of “shoes” would be) of the spectral “presence” that’s haunting this particular stately suburban manor. So there’s lots of peeking around corners; lots of floating up the stairs as the characters in front of us turn and don’t quite see us but clearly sense, you know, something. Little do they know it’s me with my box of Sweet-tarts skulking about their kitchen late at night—wha ah ah!
If you sense a modicum of goofiness in my rhetoric, good on ya, because Presence is kinda goofy. Especially in its last act as the tangled web of Jurassic Park writer David Koepp’s script tries to weave together the circular pieces of its mystery into a coherent, you know, something. There’s definitely a cleverness to where Presence takes us—it did bring to mind the time-bending metaphysical wonderment of David Lowery’s 2017 masterpiece A Ghost Story and I can’t knock that. But it’s one that doesn’t quite land because, to put it bluntly, its characters are all kind of assholes.
So what of those characters? Presence begins off strong with any ghost story’s most cardinal character—the real estate agent. The one who sells the fiendish house to its unsuspecting victims. Here she’s named Cece and she’s played by Uncut Gems actress slash tabloid wunderkind Julia Fox, strutting about in excellently sexy business attire. And it’s her job to introduce us to the family who’s come to see and buy the house that we be a’haunting. And Fox does so with single-scene-stealing aplomb—you will find yourself wishing Cece will find her way back into the narrative, but I must warn you not to get your hopes up. She’s got better things, better houses and movies, to haunt.
The family then who’s come to get haunted by this house (slash our creepy leering eyeballs) consists of the following: there’s laid-back father Chris (Chris Sullivan from Soderbergh’s grand series The Knick), there’s high-strung mother Rebekah (Lucy f’ing Liu), and there’s their two pretty teenagers—prized alpha son Tyler and his fuck-up sister Chloe, played by newcomers Eddie Maday and Callina Liang.
And everybody’s got their own bullshit to parse, which Koepp’s script doles out to us in time-skipping miniature—we’re never sure how much time passes between scenes but if I had to guess the story takes place over a few months? Long enough for the empty house to become lived in, and for Tyler to make a new best friend in the extraordinary douche-bro named Ryan (West Mulholland), who the movie keeps trying (and failing) to paint as anything but the extraordinary douche-bro he very clearly is. But not long enough for whatever horrible deed it is that Rebekah did in her vaguely defined job to explode in her face, even though she keeps constantly apologizing to all of her family members like that axe will be falling any minute.
The best thing about Presence is baked into that vagueness, though—Soderbergh clearly does understand that it’s the undefined sense of guilt that matters the most in a ghost story. It doesn’t matter exactly what Rebekah did at her job that’s about to ruin them, and it doesn’t matter why Chris is considering leaving her, and it doesn’t matter why all of Chloe’s friends keep dying on her (okay actually that one does matter). What matters the most is that everybody is a mess and anxious and feeling gross, and that we in the audience soak up those vibes too. Existential empathy, yo. It’s where the sweet ghost-story spot thrives.
Where the film loses itself though is when it starts dutifully clicking its pieces into place. When the mystery of the haunting moves center stage and turns too elaborate, too dependent on too many outside factors. There’s just too much happening in its last act basically, and not much of it ever fits together in believable ways. The characters behave stupidly, cruelly. And far too much of it becomes reliant on the character of Tyler, a hateful little shit who the film clearly hates and makes us hate too.
Indeed, it’s too hard to really like any of these people—even inexplicably and for the first time ever, Lucy Liu! And so our empathy, existential or no, can only go so far in this haunted place, whether we’re walking in this ghost’s ghost-shoes or not. Presence ends up just feeling like an empty trick—a sleight of hand that Soderbergh felt compelled to make work, in spite of everything else. He is pointing his camera straight at these people and he is chasing them up and down the stairs, but he’s never really seeing them. Perhaps he was too worried he’d trip and mess up the shot.